Papinta, “Queen of the Myriad Dance”
By Deborah Zamaria
July 2018 Martinez Historical Society Newsletter
Papinta was born Caroline Hipple in Indiana, although sometimes she said it was Michigan. She also claimed San Francisco as her birthplace and said that her parents were Spanish. She said she was the cousin of the Duchess of Rochefoucauld and her uncle was an Oregon senator. It wasn’t true, but it made a good story for the San Francisco newspapers in the early 1900s.
In 1897, just off what is now Castle Rock Road in Walnut Creek, Caroline and her husband, William (Billy) Holpin, purchased 160 acres of land for $8,000, the beginning of their dream to live a quiet, rural life raising, training and racing thoroughbred horses. The oak-dotted property had once been part of the land grant given to Doña Juana Pacheco by the Mexican government when her soldier husband was killed.
The Holpins built an aviary, stables and a racetrack. A palm-tree-lined driveway led to the farmhouse they constructed, and prunes, grapes, almonds, barley, wheat and oats grew on the land. Billy installed a dam on Pine Creek to generate electricity to light the racetrack. When the stock farm was completed, Caroline, or Papinta as she was known on stage, went back to work, dancing her way through America, Europe, Africa and Asia, making money to support their Ygnacio Valley retreat.
Billy loved the theater and horse racing. He had convinced his young wife, who was a teacher when he met her, to become a dancer, and he hired a teacher to train her. The couple invested in a complex system of mirrors and calcium arc lamps. The mirrors reflected the light from the arc lamps so that at times it seemed as if the dancer and her swirling costumes were on fire.
Papinta developed this act and others as well, and traveled the world. In an interview granted to a reporter for The Wasp in his column “Through the Opera Glass” in 1897 she stated, “I have to take about 17 trunks around with me…No costume that I have contains less than 150 yards of material and that used in the fire dance contains 520 yards of silk…You can hardly imagine how much strength it takes to control the flowing skirts, and since I have been doing the dances, the muscles in my back and arms have developed enormously.”
Martinez historian Charlene Perry said that Papinta danced in Martinez around 1894, using a stage built especially for her. “She wore a body stocking underneath her silks,” Perry said. Other historians have been unable to confirm that she wore the undergarment, something that only adds to Papinta’s intrigue. It’s not clear where in Martinez Papinta performed. Historian Harriett Burt suggested that her performance possibly occurred at the Martinez Opera House that had been located on Estudillo and Escobar and was the site of a speech by Susan B. Anthony in 1896. Andrea Blachman, Director of the Martinez Museum, proposed the Curry Building on the corner of Escobar and Ferry as a possibility. (If anyone has any information on where Papinta might have performed in Martinez, please contact Andrea Blachman at 925-387-5385.)
While dancing in Rochester, New York, performing her flame dance, Papinta received news that Billy had died of something that physicians at the time called “an attack of acute gastritis,” on March 11, 1905. He was only 38 years old.
The death of her husband was a difficult time for her, made more so by the fact that her father-in-law claimed he was entitled to all of the stock farm property. A court battle ensued and was resolved in her favor. At the age of 40 she left again to dance in Europe, where she, too, died suddenly, following a performance in Dusseldorf, Germany. It was 1907. The doctors called it a heart attack, but contemporary accounts said she probably died from overexertion during her dancing.
Another very real possibility is that she died from an accumulation of the toxic fumes from the arc lights. The term “limelight,” also known as calcium light, refers to being on stage or being the center of attention. It is actually a type of stage lighting once used in theatres and music halls. Invented in the 1820s by Goldsworth Gurney, it consists of an intense illumination created when an oxyhydrogen flame is directed at a cylinder of quicklime (calcium oxide), which can be heated to 4,662°F before melting. Papinta described dancing in conditions of intense heat where she felt she was literally dancing in real fire. “The big light is only a few feet below me and I feel it like a furnace.”
Papinta’s remains were flown home and she lies buried next to her husband in the Alhambra Cemetery.
Thanks to Lee Culver, Historian and Co-President of the Walnut Creek Historical Society, for her help with this article. Two articles from the Contra Costa Times also provided extensive information: Nilda Rego’s “Great Papinta Seemed to Dance to a Different Tune” (2000) and John VanLandingham’s “Rekindling the Flame of Papinta in Martinez—after 100 Years” (1996).
Martinez Historical Society
1005 Escobar Street - Martinez, CA 94553 (925) 228-8160